In the series The Dialectics of the Sexes: no.2

If self is a location, so is love:
Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points,
Options, obstinacies, dug heels, and distance,
Here and there and now and then, a stance.

Seamus Heaney, The Aerodrome

To think that any fool may tear
by chance the web of when and where…

Nabokov, Restoration


In Woody Allen’s movie Hannah and her Sisters a pessimistic painter, living together with one of the three women, has drawn her in the nude. Openly shown, those invited to the house may observe her. Michael Caine who is secretly courting/seducing her reddens the very moment he sees her both dressed and stripped at the same time. We are witnessing Modernity.

In olden days such simultaneity was ‘not done’. It would have been the end of both the owner of the portrait as well as the woman depicted. For this reason, Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy had his mistress Maja painted twice.

Goya - Maja nude
Goya – Maja dressed

On the first painting she is dressed, voluptuously one might add, yet decent in terms of the times, her face not yet showing excitement – his woman presented to others as the beautiful female she is.

Surely enough, the man allowed to possess her and enjoy her favors was proud of his Maja – visitors to his private rooms could inspect the painting both for its picturesque, as well as for its feminine exquisiteness. After all, it was Goya who, between 1798 and 1800, had painted it.

Perhaps the famous artist – in the manner of a great tradition – has made this Maja into an amalgam, a composite of various women, possibly adding pieces of his own mistress to her puzzle. Even more possible – more traits of Goya’s mistress went into the second portrait of Maja, which now shows her completely nude, with red cheeks, but what is crucial, also showing off her pink pubic hair, a thing most contrary to that same great tradition.

Goya, Maja nude
Goya, Maja nude

According to art historians in the know this tuft of hair is the first tuft to be seen on a serious canvas – ever. In the year 1831 that might have been the reason for the Holy Inquisition to confiscate both paintings – a time, one might think, in which that holy army had become extinct. For more than a century both pictures were not to be seen again.

I almost wrote: ‘Not to be seen again in public’. That would have been a mistake. The plot of Maja’s double portrait is precisely that the Minister showed only her dressed version to selected visitors. The nude Maja, at that very same moment, was hidden by this chaste version – actually hanging on its rails. Once the visitor had gone, the Minister would slide the dressed Maja to the side, now privately contemplating the nude and vital beauties, while perhaps waiting for the real thing to appear in the flesh.

We have been describing real happenings from the beginning of that miraculous 19th century. Some thirty years later a famous poet touched on the same topic – if ‘topic’ is the right word. However, the imagination of Robert Browning carried himself and still carries his readers into older, feudal times – and into far away Italian Ferrara. Once more it is about an acte d’ absence followed by an acte de presence – this time not in paint, but in verse.

Most probably Browning took his cue from real history – in this respect there is continuity with Goya’s Maja. However: Here is plot, here is deviousness – not merely a voluptuous play with hide and seek, with masque and real thing. In the year 1558 Alfonso II, the 25 year old Duke of Ferrara, married Lucrecia de Medici, then 13 years young. After all, our notion of pedophilia had not yet been invented.

Bronzino, Lucrecia de Medici
Bronzino, Lucrecia de Medici

Whether it was her age that made this petite woman die already three years after her wedding, or her dowry as is suggested by what might have been her poisoning – we know not for sure. As Browning, in his poem My Last Duchess, does not inform us – taking for granted that we know these facts or, what seems more probable, taking for granted that we do not know them – he can manipulate his reader’s dirty mind as his verse dance along. It is only after we have read the poem that, post hoc, we may search for an image, even for her name…

Now – instead of what he normally does, hiding from everyone’s view the portrait of his wife behind a curtain, a picture painted by one Frà Pandolf – the Duke has drawn the drapes. In the beginning of the poem he shows it to what turns out to be a messenger from a wealthy father, who is offering the Duke a new Duchess.

The former Duchess, the then 16 year old petite shown on the painting, has died. One is reminded of Sade, stemming from the French noblesse d’épée, who married a woman from the lower noblesse de robe for her money. There is in Browning’s poem only a slight suggestion of wrong-doing – no reference to poisoning or otherwise. Yet “all smiles stopped…”

These smiles had offended his lordship in the past, as he informs the addressee. His Last Duchess smiled to anyone, which outraged the Duke. “As if she ranked my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift.”

Browning’s obscene poetic device of withholding the age of the last Duchess makes him a Pimp of the Perverse. A mere girl! Yet, in those days a girl of a mating age… One need not have Balthus’ preferences to know that even a girl of thirteen might be perverse. Yet, naïve she may have very well been. And Browning, the bastard, does not tell us her age…

The poem’s ‘Duke’ is outright mean. Not only does he posthumously shame his former wife in front of an underling – showing her to a servant, telling this man mean things about her. Unknowingly, so it seems, he also degrades himself in the reader’s eyes by doing so.

A disastrous misunderstanding for someone who explicitly tells his listener – messenger as well as reader – how a nobleman of his standing would never ever lower himself by telling his former wife how displeased he is with her behavior. “Who’d stoop to blame this sort of trifling?”

So now he doubly stoops.

Browning’s Last Duchess is a brilliant poem of pragmatic paradox, in which the poet implicates his reader. Not a mere reader – a witness for the prosecution.

Sierksma, 2014


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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